Brad Hand finishes 2014 strong, shows credentials for rotation spot in 2015

MIAMI — When Miami Marlins left-hander Brad Hand looks back on his eventful 2014 season, he will be most pleased with his improved command.

Hand hadn’t issued a free pass over his past three starts until Wednesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Marlins Park.

A leadoff walk to Darin Ruf would come around to score in the seventh inning on pitcher Kyle Kendrick’s two-out RBI double.

Still, it’s a significant step up with 39 walks in 111 innings. There were 35 in 60 innings as a rookie in 2011 and the 14 combined in 24 1/3 frames from 2012-13.

"I’m throwing a lot more strikes," said Hand, who allowed a run on six hits with two strikeouts in the no decision Wednesday. "These last four starts — I think today was the only time I walked somebody. Throwing more strikes. When I’ve gotten in trouble I’ve walked people. The walk came back to hurt me today, too. That was the only run they got was on the leadoff walk. That’s one of the big things I’ve improved on."

Although Hand finished the year 3-8 with a 4.38 ERA, his progression over the second half of the season shows the potential the organization has seen since selecting him in second round of the 2008 draft.

Box score

After a stint on the disabled list from late May to early July, Hand benefited from a normal routine rather than inconsistent action out of the bullpen. During a seven-start stretch from July 3-Aug. 5, Hand went 2-2 with a 2.72 ERA. He pitched into the seventh five times, allowing three earned runs or fewer in each. On July 20 against the San Francisco Giants, he won for the first time as a starter since July 7, 2011 — a span of 16 outings.

The 24-year-old posted a 3.90 ERA in 11 second-half starts — eight of them quality ones. He went into the seventh in five of them.

Though Chase Utley and Ryan Howard went hitless in seven at-bats Wednesday, Kendrick collected half of Philadelphia’s six hits against Hand. Hand credits his two-seamer as well as mixing up his pitches to get 12 groundball outs. A first-inning play at the plate saved a run. He also escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fifth with a strikeout.

"I thought Brad Hand did a good job, he handled Utley and Howard, and had a tough time getting a pitcher out," manager Mike Redmond said. "That’s the beauty of baseball right there.

Stifled

"Moved his fastball in and out, and a nice breaking ball. I thought he made some pitches, made some good pitches, got out of the bases-loaded situation there with the strikeout, and he kept his head in the game. Here we are again talking about trying to be perfect on the mound to keep our offense in the game to give us a chance to score a couple runs to win, so everything’s under the microscope now, right? Every pitch is big, and when you’re not scoring runs — but I thought he did a great job and gave us a chance to win that ballgame."

It was an interesting year for Hand, who entered this past spring training as a candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation. He and the Marlins would combine on a no-hitter March 16 in Panama in an exhibition against the New York Yankees. He went 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA over six appearances. But righty Tom Koehler won the job. Hand started the season in the bullpen without options.

By circumstance, he found himself starting April 9 on the first road trip when Jacob Turner sustained a shoulder injury swinging a bat during batting practice. He lasted just 3 1/3 innings and went just three in the next outing against the Nationals before being relegated to the bullpen.

Hand bounced around as a reliever before landing on the disabled list May 24 with a right ankle sprain. He would make six starts between Single-A Jupiter and Triple-A New Orleans before rejoining the club. During the ensuing seven-start stretch, he pitched to early contact, which allowed him to pitch deeper into games and avoid walks.

This offseason, Hand finds himself once again in the mindset of vying for a spot this upcoming spring. This time, however, it will be with a bit more momentum. His 111 big-league innings are a career high — by 51. He combined for just 24 1/3 from 2012-13.

"It’s been interesting, but hopefully finished kind of strong here," Hand said. "So going into next year trying to compete for a spot in the starting rotation."

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.